|"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev|
Odin is the first God in whom I believed; he is the God in whom I believe the most. He is the God at whom I cannot look directly. He is the keeper of sacred knowledge; he is the protector; he is the terrifying. He is the Alfödr (Allfather), who inspires awe and devotion in his children. Odin is a God I sense, whilst having little intellectual comprehension of him. But what do the books say and can we trust their words? Almost everything we think we know about Odin derives from Christian authors. Some of the stories they tell retain the essence of something sacred, but they are not reliable and, like many Greco-Roman myths, they may sometimes confuse our understanding of the divine; for a number of these stories are the spun out inventions of successive poets seeking to entertain a hall full of drunken men. Thus we need to exercise caution and look for the hidden truth – fittingly, as Odin is God both of concealment and knowledge.
Most of what we know about the Germanic Gods comes from Icelandic manuscripts written roughly 200 years after Iceland formally adopted Christianity. One of these that particularly resonates is the Hávamál, said to record the words of Odin. From this, perhaps the most haunting passage is the following:
“Wounded I hung on a wind-swept tree. For nine long nights, pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin. Offered, myself to myself. The wisest know not from whence spring the roots of that ancient tree. They gave me no bread, they gave me no mead, I looked down; with a loud cry, I took up runes; from that tree I fell.”
This is a tale of shamanism that hints at a means of acquiring sacred knowledge that has been lost but can be found. On a purely functional level it also establishes Odin as the father of the written word, and thereby the protector of knowledge. Thus he is known as the Fjölnir (wise one, all-knowing or concealer), Fjölsviðr (very wise one) and Saðr (truthful). Another story that emphasises this aspect of Odin is told in the Prose Edda:
“Under the root [of Yggdrasil – lit. “horse of the terrible one/Odin” – the world tree] that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisdom because he drinks of the well … Allfather went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge. As it says …‘Odin, I know all, where you hid the eye in that famous Well of Mimir. Each morning Mimir drinks mead from Valfather’s [Odin, father of the slain] pledge. Do you understand/still seek to know now or what?’”
Thus we cannot get something for nothing – for that which we seek there is a quid pro quo, an expenditure of effort, a sacrifice, a price to be paid. This is so even for Odin. We cannot sit on our couches all day and expect to get what we want. We have to go out and find it, work for it, negotiate for it, seize it, make it ours – carpe diem.
Other names for Odin include:
|"Odin" (1908) by H Guerber|
- Baleyg (flame eyed)
- Báleygr (one eyed)
- Biflidi/Biflindi (spear shaker or shield shaker)
- Blindi (blind one)
- Farmaguð/ Farmatýr (God of cargo)
- Gangleri/Ganglari (wanderer)
- Glapsviðr (seducer)
- Grimnir (masked one)
- Hangaguð (God of the hanged)
- Haptaguð (God of prisoners or God of fetters/God who loosens fetters)
- Hárbarðr (grey beard)
- Herran/Herjan (Lord of raiders)
- Hjálmberi (helmet bearer)
- Nikarr/Hnikarr (spear thruster)
- Ómi (resounding or loud one)
- Óski (fulfiller of desire)
- Síðhöttr (drooping hood)
- Síðskeggr (long beard)
- Sigföðr (father of victory)
- Sváfnir (puts to sleep or kill)
- Sviðrir (spear God)
- Svipall (truthful and changing/shifting one)
- Þekkr (clever, pleasant)
- Þundr (roaring one/rumbler)
- Vakr (alert or vigilant one)
- Valföðr (father of the slain)
- Veratýr (God of men)
- Yggr (terrible one)
This wandering God is a trickster, and yet he knows the truth; he is not only clever, but wise. He also protects cargo (of traders?), is Lord of raiders (by which great wealth can be won) and, more than that, is associated with death. It is thus so clear to me that this God is one and the same as Mercury, the Roman God of travel, commerce, financial gain, trickery, writing, eloquence and psychopomp. Clearly the ancients thought so too – when Germanic peoples adopted the Roman calendar they chose to name the Roman dies Mercurii (day of Mercury) “Wodnesdag”, which we now know in English as Wednesday – meaning literally, “Woden’s day” or “Odin’s day”.
It is no surprise that the God the Romans call Mercurius seems more warlike as Odin – until Christianisation the Germanic peoples were necessarily a warlike people. But Tyr (Tiwaz), equated with Mars, was the primary God of war, while Thor (Thunor), God of lightning and thunder, equated with Jupiter, also had a military aspect. There were (and still are) many stories told of Thor’s exploits as a warrior and replicas of his war hammer were popular amulets; just as Romans swore on Jupiter’s stone, so too Germanic peoples swore oaths on Mjölnir. Meanwhile, Odin’s main gift to warriors was inspiration – the most elite Germanic warriors were berserk, meaning that they:
“fought in an inspired frenzy, trusting in the power of the God [Odin] to deliver them from wounds … They wore the skins of bears or wolves, and they howled like beasts when the battle madness came upon them … [thus they fought] in a state of ecstasy which allowed escape for a while from self-consciousness and made them impervious to pain and fear [Davidson at 39-40].”
|By W Pogany (c. 1920)|
The philosophers of Greece and Rome often spoke of freedom from fear as a supremely happy and high spiritual state and this is exactly what the followers of Odin could achieve – freedom from fear and, in particular, freedom from fear of death. This gift was not confined to Odin’s sons. Women too were part of this – it is recorded in several places that certain women would voluntarily sacrifice themselves upon the death of Odin’s heroes; typically these women were ritually hanged, strangled or stabbed and then cremated on a great funeral pyre and thereby won great honour in the afterlife – the higher the smoke rose above the funeral pyre, the greater the honour.
This sounds grisly but it is surely superior to what replaced it – the morbid Christian fear of hellfire and thus of death. Fear poisons life – the Epicureans knew that. The Stoics knew it too. We live in an age where death is silently feared and abhorred; even voluntary euthanasia is illegal in most nations. Many of us have become cowards – spending our lives in pseudo-servitude to monolithic corporations so we can live long, drawn out years. Living so, we may be more like slaves than we know. To look death (and virtual death, such as workplace redundancy) in the eyes without fear is to live as a free man or woman.* That was, and is, Odin’s great gift – he can teach us to live, and to think, as free born men and women.
“A coward believes he will ever live, if the fight he faces not: but age shall not grant him the gift of peace, though spears may spare his life …
Most blest is he who lives free and bold and nurses never a grief, but the coward fear of all things feels, and the mean one mourns over giving [Hávamál].”
It is one thing to work for another, most of us do that, but while we do we must remember to stand tall and not to compromise our dignity – to not think like slaves (except in bed, if that is what we’re into;p), for our spirits are as free, or as ensnared, as we allow them to be. We should stand tall even if defeat seems to be our inevitable end – for even Gods will fall at Ragnarök – but that is no occasion for despair, for the circle of life will go ever onwards. From the ashes of the old will come the new. What comes then we cannot know; such is the mutability of all achievement.
* This doesn’t mean we should all run off and kill ourselves – not if it is fear or cowardice that motivates us, for we must also make sure we fulfill our responsibilities to those who depend upon us in this life.
|"Hugin and Munin" (Odin's Ravens) by jarnsaxe.deviantart.com|
- H A Bellows (Translator), The Poetic Edda, Princeton University Press
- O Bray (Translator) & D L Ashliman (Ed), Havamal, University of Pittsburgh
- H R Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
- S Sturluson & J Byock (Translator), The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics
If you like this post you may like Tacitus on Indigenous Germanic Religion